Making capetonian urban nature public - concept note

This text could possibly be cited as:
Ernstson, H. (2011) Making capetonian urban nature public: Recognizing the ecological rehabilitation project ‘The Dressing of the Princess’ beyond its immediate locality. Published at, 2011-03-02.
The file can also be downloaded as PDF here.

Cape Town, February 22, 2011

This is a brief concept note and internal discussion paper by Henrik Ernstson (PhD), Postdoctoral fellow at the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town. Contact: Also published on his blog:

Making capetonian urban nature public:
Recognizing the restoration project at
Princess Vlei beyond its immediate locality

Henrik Ernstson


The rehabilitation project “Dressing of the Princess” can be viewed as an emergent partnership. The locally driven project of replanting fynbos vegetation at the Princess Vlei area, a wetland and public open space in southern Cape Town, has grown to establish relations not only with organizations around Grassy Park, but also with local and national government agencies, nearby schools, local business associations, other civic associations across Cape Town, and also caught the interest of academics and students. The origin can be traced to the individuals of Cape Flats Wetland Forum (Ernstson 2011), especially its active spokesperson, but the emergent network now also includes the civic associations LOGRA, Greater Cape Town Civic Alliance, and WESSA, alongside local and state agencies City Parks, the Biodiversity Management Branch, SANBI, and Working for Wetlands (see Box 1). That there is currently an open and intense conflict since 2009 between residents and civic associations on one hand, and developers and the City of Cape Town on the other, whether to re-zone and build a shopping centre and taxi rank on Princess Vlei, should be seen in the light of this emergent network of support. Indeed the conflict highlights different urban agendas and how a more sustainable future for Cape Town is envisioned and put into practice.

As I will argue, this emergent partnership needs to be recognized beyond its immediate locality of engagement. First of all, what can be seen is a quite astounding capacity of self-organization that resides in this emergent partnership, and which primarily was built upon the already existing organizational structures and organizational skills of the residents of Grassy Park and its vicinity. Building on this capacity, new relations has been forged to strengthen the partnership, and continuously grow its scope to include not only the areas of Princess Vlei and the Bottom Road Sanctuary, but also the whole of Grassy Park, and, I would say, the whole of Cape Town. What namely seems to be in the making is a new way by which urban nature can be engaged and understood in post-apartheid Cape Town; from being something exclusively ‘protected’ by experts and conservation mangers within zoned nature reserves, it is now coming alive as something that previously marginalized citizens of Cape Town can engage and claim as belonging to also their identities, histories and everyday. As such, the partnership points out a route on how to make capetonian urban nature truly public, something of the right and concern of all citizens. This concept note strives to clarify some of my emergent insights into this compelling story and reality, which of course can be contested and debated. The note was partly presented at the University of Cape Town’s African Centre for Cities on the 16th of September 2010 and is based upon interviews and participatory observations during the last three years with active citizens involved in this partnership.

International outlook

The Dressing of the Princess project and partnership should be set against an international outlook. Cities of the world are facing a huge pressure to transform their spaces to become more ecologically sustainable, while also reach higher levels of equity, inclusivity, and economic viability (Pieterse 2008, Ernstson et al. 2010b). Cape Town, with its colonial and apartheid history, alongside its growth within the biodiversity rich and smallest of the world’s floral kingdoms (Holmes et al. 2008), manifests these multiple challenges with all clarity (OECD 2008). When it comes to facing the ecological challenge, a row of initiatives have been taken by the city and provisional government, ranging from the development of a Biodiversity Network to influence urban planning (Holmes et al. 2008), and pushing towards more people-centred conservation practices in protected areas through initiatives like Cape Flats Nature (which quite regretfully was terminated in August 2010)(Israelsson 2010, Pitt and Boulle 2010, Israelsson and Ernstson submitted). However, it is becoming clear that a strategy that only focuses and devotes resources to the management of protected areas and nature reserves alone, is less and less likely to deliver on the multiple challenges that Cape Town is facing, and that also non-protected areas necessarily need to play a role (see international literature for examples: (Colding et al. 2006, Ernstson and Sörlin 2009, Krasny and Tidball 2009, Barthel et al. 2010, Ernstson et al. 2010a, Ernstson et al. 2010b).

In this respect, the Dressing of the Princess project to rehabilitate the public open green space at Princess Vlei is crucial to learn from as it represents an alternative and complement to nature reserves. Starting at Bottom Road in 2005, and since then growing to include also nearby Last Road (2005-2008), The Ecopark community square (2008-2010), and the much larger Princess Vlei area (2008 and ongoing), this emergent partnership allows us to see that other derelict and mismanaged public green spaces often found in areas marginalized during apartheid, could be potential sites through which to combine social development and ecological restoration. Although recognizing the difficulties in each such potential project, similar grassroots driven attempts are found at other spaces in Cape Town, for instance at nearby Lavender Hill.

Box 1. The emergent partnership around The Dressing of the Princess project (as of 2011-01-24)
·       Cape Flats Wetland Forum* (CFWF) with the aim to restore the wetlands of Cape Flats for people and plants. Its spokesperson Kelvin Cochrane has been a prime organizer for the emergent partnership since 2005 when he lead the ecological rehabilitation projects at Bottom Road Sanctuary (; 2005-2008), Last Road (2007-2009), The Ecopark community square (2008-2010), and Princess Vlei (2008 and ongoing). (CFWF was previously also known as ‘BioWatch’ and ‘Bottom Road Sanctuary.)
·       LOGRA CIVIC, the Lotus River, Ottery and Grassy Park Rate Payers Association that aims “to alleviate poverty by empowering the community to help itself.” (
·       Greater Cape Town Civic Alliance (GCTCA) is “an alliance of civic community and environmental oriented organizations, focusing on matters of community interest” with over 100 member organizations. (
·       WESSA, Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa, is a membership based NGO that works “to achieve a South Africa which is wisely managed by all to ensure long-term environmental sustainability”. Locally it has so called Friends Groups. (
·       City Parks* is a department within the City of Cape Town responsible for the provision of “quality parks and dignified cemeteries” (Go to and search its name).
·       The Biodiversity Management Branch* is a special unit within the City of Cape Town that “is responsible for the conservation and restoration of biodiversity within the City's boundary.” It also aims to “ensure that biodiversity and nature are mainstreamed into everyday life, which includes delivering tangible benefits to all communities.” (Go to and search its name.)
·       SANBI*, South African National Biodiversity Institute* (and the former Urban Conservation Unit), is a state agency “responsible for exploring, revealing, celebrating and championing biodiversity for the benefit and enjoyment of all of South Africa’s people.” (
·       Working for Wetlands*, is an extended public works program that “uses wetland rehabilitation as a vehicle for both poverty alleviation and the wise use of wetlands”, aiming to partner government, landowners, communities, civil society and the private sector. It is housed within SANBI. (
·       Schools Forum in which each local school “adopts-a-plot” at the wetland to plant and take care of its management. The schools forum is lead by CFWF and includes the following schools:
o   Grassy Park High
o   Johan Graham Primary School
o   Kannemeyer Primary
o   Lotus River High
o   Sibelius School
o   South Peninsula
·       Local Business Forum with small business associations from Grassy Park and Retreat.
·       Certain other organizations could also be mentioned in this list as individuals with organizational affiliations have supported the project, for instance individuals from the Friends of Tokai Forest.

In parallel to these organizations, the author of this text, Dr Henrik Ernstson at the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town, is heading a social-ecological research project that has engaged with and followed the partnership since 2007.

Note: Those marked with an asterisk (*) are the formal signees of the Memorandum of Agreement of “The Princess Vlei Restoration Project: The Dressing of the Princess signed between August and September 2008 (MOU 2008).

Short history of the partnership

Princess Vlei is a wetland and a public open space lying south of Cape Town’s historical centre. It brings multidimensional benefits to the people living in this area of the Cape Flats, but also to Cape Town as a whole. In parallel it is a place of intense meaning, collective remembering, and a site that can potentially heal wrongdoings of the past by allowing those marginalized during apartheid to gain space to articulate, celebrate and reflect upon their cultural history. As a wetland it generates a row of ecosystem services, not the least that of retaining water in times of flooding, but it also functions as a space for supporting animals and plants and forms part of the corridors of the Cape Town Biodiversity Network. As a public open space it has become an intense part of collective memory, being one of the most cherished open spaces accessible to those classified as “Coloureds” during the apartheid era, as told by many that visited the Princess Vlei during the objection letter day in October 2010. Before apartheid, and even before colonialism, Princess Vlei was where indigenous Khoi tribes watered their herds and performed their religious rites, and according to a legend that has travelled from mouth to mouth during 500 years, a Khoi princess was raped and murdered by European sailors with her tears filling the Vlei as she saw the land of her people being lost. Written historical accounts confirm this legend, although stating that the Khoi princess was “abducted” (Burman 1962).

Figure 1. Overview of Cape Flats with Princess Vlei and photo from Bottom Road Sanctuary.

In August-September 2008 the project called “Dressing of the Princess” started, initiated by local champion Kelvin Cochrane of Cape Flats Wetland Forum who became its voluntary-based project manager. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed between Cape Flats Wetland Forum (then called ‘BioWatch’), City Parks, the Biodiversity Management Branch, and SANBI to rehabilitate the biological condition of this crucial wetland, and restore its public open space functions(MOU 2008). In less than two years, local champions, communities and schools had taken the lead, together with workers of the Working for Wetlands, and shown that biological habitat could come to recover faster than what many suspected. It should here be recognized that instead of trying to follow standard scientific recipes of biological conservation, which experts claim to require larger areas and for which the project was never funded, the emergent Dressing of the Princess partnership accomplished something different: a truly innovative practice of weaving the ‘social’ and ‘ecological’ together in a city that so desperately seeks an urban agenda that can address both marginalization, poverty, and the protection of high levels of biodiversity.

The Dressing of the Princess project was not something invented from thin air. Rather it was a project shaped and built upon previous experiences and collaborations. Three years earlier in 2005, residents at the Bottom Road at the northern shore of Zeekoevlei bought pieces of land that had been used as a rubbish dump. Through the initial work by Kelvin Cochrane they all agreed upon not putting up security fences between their properties and start a rehabilitation project to restore fynbos vegetation. In collaborating with conservation managers at the Rondevlei nature reserve, a white paper agreement was signed in which both residents and the nature reserve would ‘give up’ five metres of property each for the rehabilitation project to work on, later followed by a similar agreement for the nearby Lazarus Road (2007). Through also forging collaborative ties with the extended works programme Working for Wetlands, the project could access state resources and workers to help out, alongside resident’s own labour and resources, with the clearing of non-indigenous plants and the plantation of indigenous plants. A year later, another phase of the project developed an agreement with City Parks to rehabilitate a derelict and vacant plot to become a green community square, the ‘Ecopark’ (2008). All these areas are now thriving spaces for fynbos plants, soccer playing youth, birthday celebrations and resident’s brai parties, in effective, well-functioning public open spaces. The collective desire is to translate what informants refer to as the “blueprint” of Bottom Road Sanctuary, and realize it at the much larger, and more visited Princess Vlei.

As mentioned above, there is an open conflict at the moment whether a shopping centre and taxi rank should be built on Princess Vlei. Whereas some argue that both projects could be hosted at the Vlei, others, including all of the civic associations that support the Dressing of the Princess Vlei project, strongly contest this notion. In July 2009, civic associations could hand in over 1200 signatures from persons in support of stopping the shopping centre. In October 2010 over a hundred objection letters were added to these. A decision on this issue, after the completion of two on-going public participation processes, will be made public in March 2011.

Platform to learn from

The partnership could serve as a civic-public platform to build upon and learn from. Since its inception in 2005, the growing partnership has produced a set of innovations and demonstrated at least the following:

·      How active citizens and civic associations can collaborate with civil servants to access state resources to generate and sustain change on the ground, especially in and through derelict and marginalized public green spaces. This has been accomplished through on one hand accessing the funds and workers made available from the state-driven Working for Wetlands programme, and by the signing of agreements between civic associations and local authorities. There are now two such agreements in force, one for the Bottom Road Sanctuary (with Rondevlei Nature Reserve), and one for Princess Vlei (with City Parks and SANBI).

·      How support for green area rehabilitation in the local neighbourhood can be built and sustained over time, for instance through involving nearby schools in adopt-a-plot schemes to take care of smaller green spaces, and through finding collaborative relations with already existing community organizations such as LOGRA in Grassy Park.

·      How experiences from smaller-scale engagement can be built upon to be reproduced at other locations and at greater scales. As mentioned, there has been an interesting and important re-scaling of activities from the more residential and semi-public areas of Bottom Road in 2005, to the bigger public green areas of Princess Vlei in 2008 to present.

·      How civic engagement with urban green spaces can change and rehabilitate ecological processes on the ground. It is important to note that civic engagement in green spaces could not only generate collaborative social relations, but also start changing ecological processes. For instance, the planting of fynbos attracts pollinators and birds, and plant seedlings grow and spread, generating de facto new and self-sustained ecosystem processes. Although more biological assessments are needed (which is also on its way through research here at UCT), this type of social engagement could uphold biodiversity and ecosystem functions and services for a greater urban area, and serve as ecological linkages between other sites of biodiversity and ecosystems (cf. (Colding et al. 2006, Colding 2007).

·      On top of this, the partnership has also started to develop ways and means on how to build institutions and organizational structures that can sustain rehabilitation and community-based management of these areas over time. One difficulty lies for instance in funding the maintenance of rehabilitated and restored green spaces. In the wake of more public funds available, the Cape Flats Wetland Forum is undergoing a transformation to use its skills to carry out other rehabilitation projects from which earnings can go to fund their more community driven projects (see here or here on CFWF; Ernstson 2011).

Embedding ecosystems as part of ‘community’

To sum up, the partnership demonstrates an important complement to how urban nature is protected and managed in Cape Town today. The partnership shows how local and national agencies can build collaborations with engaged citizens and civic associations that directly engage, through their hands and hearts but also through their organizational skills, in rehabilitating those green urban areas that often fall outside the nature conservators’ map.

For state agencies and policy makers, the motivational factors to take an interest in this type of partnership are several, but include the obvious one that community-driven rehabilitation projects could be a cost-effective way of creating spaces that can merge biodiversity aims and public open space functions (Colding in press). Besides this, another motivational factor is that non-reserve areas, which directly allow for civic engagement with urban nature, can help to embed urban ecosystems as part of the everyday experience of citizens and consequently aid in developing a new language of ’conservation’ that can be understood also by the non-expert. Urban ‘ecosystems’ become talked about in new ways, and embedded in stories of everyday urban life. This could come to embed ecosystems as part of the identity of residential areas and communities, thus complementing efforts by conservation managers to educate people about the value of biodiversity and urban ecosystems.

From racialized to public: re-constructing urban nature

A final point, which certainly takes this partnership beyond the locality in which it originated, and which addresses a broader point of concern for Cape Town’s future, lies in how the partnership has produced a new imaginary for urban nature. Focusing on rehabilitating the green and wetland areas of Princess Vlei, both as a site of biodiversity and as a public open space, the partnership has also produced a new imaginary – a new narrative – of what capetonian urban nature can be about.

As the history of urban nature and urban ecology is inseparable from the social history of colonial and apartheid rule of Cape Town, one needs to recognize that also urban nature – and the great diversity of fynbos and strandveld plants, and the spaces where they grew and grow within the city – became racialized as well. Above all, to protect and care for nature became something for reserve managers and scientists, who during the long apartheid era were professions designated primarily to the few classified as ‘Whites’. A unique contribution that the partnership seems to have made, and indeed embodies through being driven by people formerly classified as ‘Coloureds’, ‘African’ or ‘Indian’, lies in that it has filled urban nature with a different meaning. Whereas the traditional and expert-driven approach to nature conservation tend to talk in scientific ways about ‘biodiversity’ and ‘ecosystem services’ and often concentrates on counting the number of species to value land, the row of people and organizations engaged in Princess Vlei have created an alternative way to talk about fynbos and strandveld vegetation, and the spaces where they grow. In these narratives, the plants, animals, and the people, become part of collective storytelling to also articulate memories of oppression, of joy, and despair.

As conclusion, I would argue that the network of individuals and organizations spun in and through and beyond Princess Vlei, should be recognized for more than rehabilitating a wetland and a public open space; it is also about creating new ways by which we can talk about Cape Town’s urban nature, a way which could allow for many more capetonians to claim and engage urban nature as part of their everyday life. Indeed, this represents a new cultural framing of urban nature that seems to be more inclusive than that of the past. At the same time, and especially through the struggle to stop the re-zoning and the building of a shopping mall at Princess Vlei, several environmental groups from historically ‘White’ residential areas have joined the partnership, thus also demonstrating how urban nature – as a point of conflict and social engagement – can come to bridge old racial divides. In this sense, the partnership could also be seen as truly aspiring to make Cape Town’s urban nature public, that is, something of concern and the right of everybody sharing this city as their home.

Referenced literature

Barthel, S., C. Folke, and J. Colding. 2010. Social-ecological memory in urban gardens: Retaining the capacity for management of ecosystem services. Global Environmental Change 20:255-265.
Burman, J. 1962. Safe to Sea. Human & Rousseau, Cape Town.
Colding, J. 2007. 'Ecological land-use complementation' for building resilience in urban ecosystems. Landscape and Urban Planning 81:46-55.
Colding, J. in press. Creating incentives for increased public engagement in ecosystem management through urban commons. Page Chapter 13 in E. Boyd and C. Folke, editors. Adapting institutions: meeting the challenge of global environmental change. Cambridge University Press.
Colding, J., J. Lundberg, and C. Folke. 2006. Incorporating Green-area User Groups in Urban Ecosystem Management. Ambio 35:237-244.
Ernstson, H. 2011. Concept note on the organization Cape Flats Wetland Forum (CFWF). In Rhizomia.
Ernstson, H., S. Barthel, E. Andersson, and S. T. Borgström. 2010a. Scale-crossing brokers and network governance of urban ecosystem services: the case of Stockholm. Ecology and Society 15:28.
Ernstson, H., S. E. van der Leeuw, C. L. Redman, D. J. Meffert, G. Davis, C. Alfsen, and T. Elmqvist. 2010b. Urban transitions: on urban resilience and human-dominated ecosystems. Ambio 39:531-545.
Ernstson, H. and S. Sörlin. 2009. Weaving protective stories: connective practices to articulate holistic values in Stockholm National Urban Park. Environment and Planning A 41:1460–1479.
Holmes, P., J. Wood, and C. Dorse. 2008. City of Cape Town: Biodiversity Report. City of Cape Town.
Israelsson, E. 2010. Mind the Gap: People-Centered Biodiversity Conservation in Policy and Practice in Cape Town, South Africa. Master. Stockholm University, Stockholm.
Israelsson, E. and H. Ernstson. submitted. Analyzing shifts towards people-centered conservation practice: a comparative study of urban biodiversity protection at four nature reserves in Cape Town. Ecology and Society.
Krasny, M. E. and K. Tidball. 2009. Community Gardens as Contexts for Science, Stewardship, and Civic Action Learning. Cities and the Environment 2:8.
MOU. 2008. The Princess Vlei Restoration Project: "Dressing the Princess" a Hertiage and Environmental Site. BioWatch (now Cape Flats Wetland Forum), Cape Town.
OECD. 2008. OECD Territorial Reviews: Cape Town, South Africa. OECD Publishing, Paris.
Pieterse, E. 2008. City Futures: Confronting the Crisis of Urban Development. Zed Books, XX.
Pitt, B. and T. Boulle. 2010. Growing Together: Thinking and Practice of Urban Nature Conservators. SANBI Cape Flats Nature, Cape Town.


Georgina said…
Thanks Henrik! This has wonderfully put things into even more perspective and has really inspired me!:)


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